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The Toll of The Bush


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The long-practised Maori women were opening the stone ovens, throwing aside earth and stone, matting and fern, and disclosing the steaming interiors—fish, flesh, or fowl—cooked to a turn, and redolent of savoury odours. Here was a pyramid of butter-coloured kumaras, yonder a snowy hill of potatoes, crowned with creamy cobs of the green corn, or with the melting succulence of young marrows. And now, with a rush and shrill cries, sprang forth an army of girls, bareheaded, bright-eyed, armed with tiny baskets of freshly-cut flax, who, falling on the food, divided it into hundreds of portions, and then, with strange contortions of body and of countenance and with welcoming cries, advanced on the wedding guests, bearing the hospitable baskets in their hands.

'Welcome, O wedding guests! Welcome, O guests of the rangatira pakeha,1 the beloved! Welcome, O guests of Eve, the sun-haired, the sky-eyed, the beautiful! Behold, you are welcome, welcome, welcome!'

1 White chief.

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Then with laughter and sparkling glances the girls delivered their burdens, to each guest the food he preferred, and when this was done, withdrew as they had come.

On the beach stood Major Milward, watching the scene with approving eyes. To him the old forms and ceremonies were sacred things, not to be disregarded or slurred over. The number of his guests rendered it impossible that they should be received in the house, where the elder and more noteworthy visitors were to be entertained, but at least the recipients of the hangi1 should partake of his hospitality with all the forms and ordinances in such cases made and provided. And that this might be so he stood by observant.

Farther back on the beach the Rev. Mr. Fletcher, conversing with his best man, a slender young minister from Auckland, watched the plantation wicket with anxious eyes. For an hour the bride had remained invisible, but now he understood she had been sent for, and in a few moments, doubtless, she would arrive. Meanwhile his companion was asking his assent to a highly elevated view of matrimony, to which it behoved him to reply.

'The perception of a twin soul regarding one from the countenance of a fellow-being,' the young minister said with dreamy enthusiasm, a faint colour showing in his thin cheek, 'is certainly a warming and enchanting thought.' He was thinking of the pretty eyes of Kate Angus, the bridesmaid.

Mr. Fletcher moved impatiently, muttering some indistinguishable reply.

'One may say that through that perception,' the

1 The food cooked in native ovens.

page 344young man went on, intent on his discoveries, 'the Creator orders and sanctions the holy ordinance of matrimony.' He paused suddenly, beholding a perfect treasure-house of glittering ideas in this connection, then awoke from his reverie to find Mr. Fletcher regarding him steadily.

Was it possible he beheld on his companion's countenance something bearing an unmistakable though clerical resemblance to a cynical smile? The young man blushed.

'How,' asked the bridegroom slowly, 'if the recognition fails to be mutual?'

How indeed! The Rev. Mr. Lawrence felt the chill of the suggestion like a cold key down his spine. He was flabbergasted. He could see no way out of the ruins of his pretty philosophy. But happily the inquirer's attention was distracted. At last the wicket had opened and a young girl was hurrying down the beach. Both men recognised the fair bridesmaid, and from different motives stood to watch her. For awhile she moved down the shingle, then, picking up her skirt, ran fleetly across the smooth sands. At the moment Major Milward stood alone, his soldierly figure erect and still. He turned sharply towards his approaching grandchild and spread his arms with a playful gesture. The watchers saw him hold her at first to his breast, then at arm's-length, her slight figure seeming to sway in his grip.

The whirligig of time frequently brings in its revenges with a singular aptitude. Of nearly such a scene had Geoffrey Hernshaw, standing, as he believed, by the Waters of the River of Delight, been a silent and fearful witness three months before.

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Mr. Fletcher observed that the couple had drawn apart and were both looking towards him. Then the girl started running again, this time in his direction, while her grandfather bent his steps toward the house.

What man so fortunate that he has never looked on the bearer of bad tidings to read his message from afar off? Already over the countenance of the bridegroom there was settling a deep cloud of sadness and gloom. So this was God's way! Suffering all things, permitting that the wicked should triumph only that the fruit of his wickedness should turn to ashes in his mouth.

The girl paused in front of them and glanced with apologetic eyes at the young minister. 'May I speak to you alone, Mr. Fletcher?' she asked breathlessly.

Mr. "Lawrence raised his hat and turned quickly away.

'Grandfather wants you to come up to the house at once. Something has—has happened.'

'Tell me what it is, Kate—quickly if you can.'

'We can't find Eve anywhere. She is not in the house, and mother thinks she has gone away.'

'Yes, and why does your mother think so?'

'Because her riding-habit is not in her room. Because the stable-boy can't find her saddle.'

Mr. Fletcher strode forward rapidly. Compared with the unformed thing in his mind, the girl's definite answers fell with a shock of relief. Strange as was the bride's conduct, it might yet bear a simple and innocent interpretation. Had she suddenly remembered some friend to whom she had forgotten to say good-bye? Had any message reached her?

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He put the question to the girl at his side. Yes, Eve had received a letter a few minutes after the marriage. Surely Mr. Fletcher had seen some one pass it to her at the gate. Mr. Fletcher had not noticed the circumstance. Did she know from whom the letter came?—the nature of its contents.

Kate shook her head.

They ascended to the verandah and entered the dining-room through the glass doors. The wedding guests, scenting trouble, had retired to the beach, leaving the house to the undisturbed possession of the family. Only the aged missionary rose as Mr. Fletcher entered, and extended a kindly hand of sympathy.

'Trust in God, my dear young friend,' he said kindly. 'I have lived to join together the hands of many young people, but I have never yet seen tragedy sit down to the marriage feast.'

But in God Mr. Fletcher could no longer trust. The door opened and Sandy appeared. There was a cold hostility in his eye as it fell on his brother-in-law. 'Major Mil ward would like to see you in his study.'

Mr. Fletcher bowed, and passing along the passage pushed open the door of the indicated room. For a moment he seemed to see, outlined against the window, the bent form of a feeble old man; then he knew that his eyes had played him a trick, for Major Milward, stiffly erect, stood confronting him with something in his extended hand. 'Mr. Fletcher,' he said, 'my grand-daughters have found this letter, which I understand is addressed to you. Take it and do me the favour of acquainting me with its contents.'

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Mr. Fletcher examined the document in silence. When at length he raised his eyes his face had whitened, and for a moment the devil had full possession. 'Do you imply that you are not already aware of its contents?' he asked with a cold smile.

Major Milward stood thunderstruck. Never had any man offered him so deliberate an insult. He could barely believe his ears. Then he stepped briskly to a rack of horse-whips and selected a serviceable weapon. 'I see I have mistaken the character of the man with whom I am dealing,' he said icily. 'I am no longer content to hear your version of the document. You will oblige me by reading it word for word.'

For an instant the two men, the old and the young, faced one another with flaming eyes. To an onlooker it must have seemed that to this rapidly culminated crisis there could by no possibility be an outlet in speech. It must have seemed that the dignity of both men stood imperilled, to be saved by nothing short of a miracle. Yet so inbred in human nature is the knowledge of right, so powerful is the right to prevail, even in the face of the hot anger of a strong man, that before the lightning in the eyes of the old soldier, who had never fought a dishonourable fight or met defeat in all his eighty years, the strength of the guilty man passed from him, and he bowed his head upon his breast.

Major Milward threw the whip into a corner and rapped his fingers imperatively on the edge of the table. 'Well, sir?' he demanded.

The minister moved a step forward and spread the letter on the desk. 'Read it then,' he said page 348bitterly. 'Heaven knows it did not need the threat of physical violence to force from me the admission that I am a sinful man. For that, and for the consequences of my sin, I shall yet have to answer to God. But whatever be your verdict on my conduct, do not forget that the woman who is your daughter is also my wife, and that however great is your love for her it cannot by possibility be greater than my own.'

Major Milward took the letter and read it slowly through, and if the hand that held the paper was not entirely steady, at least it had been firm enough when a moment's tremor might have lost for him the command of the situation. He folded the document thoughtfully and laid it on the table.

'By what means did this letter come into my daughter's possession?' he asked, turning a pair of cold eyes on his son-in-law.

'That I am unable to say. Certainly without my consent or knowledge.'

'Exactly. Not only have you turned a deaf ear to your correspondent's request, but your silence has consented to the lie which you are here asked to disclaim. What worse act you may have performed I am at this moment not sufficiently conversant with the facts to assert, but the case is sufficiently disgraceful as it stands. It would be futile, no doubt, to demand the whole depth of your ignominy.'

'I desire to conceal nothing, Major Milward. I did lend my silence to confirm the slander.' He paused, and with a hardening of the mouth continued: 'With one person I went further; I related page 349the story not as rumour, but fact. In short, what I did, I did completely.'

'And you have the countenance to stand there and tell me so? Do your religious beliefs consent to actions which average morality must regard with contempt? Has the Church no epithet for conduct such as yours?'

'Do not slander my Church in reviling me,' said Mr. Fletcher sombrely. 'What I have done I have done in defiance of my God, who will yet vindicate Himself in the punishment He will mete out to me.'

'Ah! therein, unfortunately, our views are whole seas apart. It is with some doubt as to the certainty of that punishment that I am at pains to indicate to you the opinions of honourable men.'

'Then be content. Even at the hands of men I have not and shall not escape suffering.'

Major Milward threw himself into a chair and curtly indicated a seat opposite him, but the minister remained standing.

'My daughter has left the house, as no doubt you have heard. She has probably done so to escape her husband. What do you propose to do?'

'To find her and bring her back.'

'The day when a man could possess himself of his wife by brute force has gone by, and you are ignorant of the Milward character if you suppose that anything short of bonds would hold her against her will.'

'I am presuming that her father's authority will not be without influence on her conduct.'

'Probably not; but dismiss from your mind the notion that that authority will be exercised in your behalf. There is no undoing the act that has made page 350her your wife in name, but whether she will ever become so in fact is another matter. Certainly without her fullest consent she never will if I can prevent it.'

'Are you clearly conscious of the scandal which must attend the separation of husband and wife on their marriage morning?'

Major Milward smiled grimly. 'Let me hear your own reply to that question.'

'The man who has incurred the wrath of his Creator can view with indifference the revilings of men.'

'That is a theory you will have the fullest opportunity of putting to the test.'

'You offer me, then, no hope of reconcilement?'

'I offer you no hope of compulsion. If you can reconcile Eve to accept you as her husband, well and good; but I will not stir hand or foot either to assist or prevent you. What hope you can find in that you are welcome to. And now, for the present, I will ask you to retire. You will please refrain from any attempt to trace—your wife, or indeed from any action whatever in connection with her. Should anything occur necessitating your presence, I will send word to Rivermouth.'

'Do I understand, Major Milward, that you ask me to leave the house and remain inactive at this juncture?' Mr. Fletcher asked, a note of agitation in his deep voice.

'Such in substance is my request,' said the Major stiffly, opening the door.

'Do you neglect the torture of anxiety I must suffer until my wife's whereabouts are discovered?'

'No doubt you are feeling disappointed,' the page 351Major returned cheerfully, as he struck the bell on his table; 'but none the less I am confident you will see the advisability of returning to Rivermouth. At present I am disposed to think a reconcilement between husband and wife is the best solution to this disgraceful affair, but a very little might cause me to alter my opinion. Sandy, will you see that Mr. Fletcher has a horse?'

When Sandy returned from his errand he found his father pacing the room in agitation.

'Jack Wilson knows something about it, father,' he said. 'He is outside. Shall I tell him to come in?'

Major Milward gave his assent, and listened in silence while the shepherd stumbled through his story. 'Very well,' he said, as the youth concluded, 'you may go. See that Mr. Wilson is paid off tonight,' he added, turning to his son.

Sandy winked cautiously at the lad as he closed the door upon him, but he was too wise to seek to change his father's purpose just then.

'It is almost certain she has gone to the Girds,' he said; 'but the Maoris say the fire has crossed the road beyond M'Gregor's, and it is doubtful whether she could get through. Anyway, supposing the Girds have not been burnt out themselves, they could only be got at on foot by a bush track from behind,'

'Then she must be brought back,' said his father. 'Take the best horses and riders on the station and go and fetch her.' He paused suddenly, a deepening look of anxiety on his face. 'Where is Geoffrey Hernshaw?' he asked.

'Left last night for the settlement.' Sandy's eye, roaming uneasily, fell on the whip lying in the page 352corner, and he picked it up and returned it to the rack.

Major Milward watched his actions with unseeing eyes. 'Sandy, on the table there you will find a torn letter; take it and read it.'

Sandy obeyed. When the two men looked at one another again the resemblance between them was pronounced.

'Whatever happens they must be kept apart.' There was no consent in the son's face.

Major Milward's brows contracted. 'Whatever happens,' he repeated slowly, 'they must not be allowed to meet.'

Sandy shook himself as though to be rid of some evil influence. 'So be it,' he said solemnly.

'Then go; bring her back; promise her anything; but do not return without her.'

Sandy turned with alacrity and hastened to the rear of the house. At the back-door he found Jack Wilson awaiting him, his face overspread with gloom.

'Cheer up, Wilson,' he said. 'Get in the horses quick and lively.'

'I've got them in already, Mr. Milward—Seabird and Hohoro and The Lance and Wardog.'

'Where are the boys?'

'Waiting in the stockyard.'

'Half a minute while I put on my spurs.'

Sandy darted into the harness-room, and a few moments later joined the others in the stockyard. In a twinkling the four men were in the saddles. The stable-boy threw open the gate, and with a clatter on the cobbles and a thud on the turf the horses swept forward on the chase—round the rough cattle-tracks on the hills, down with a plunge on to page 353the hard sand of the beach, and away in a tireless gallop to the looming portals of the forest.

The sickly pallor of the sun's rays had thickened into an orange-coloured mist as they entered the bush. Mile after mile of the journey was traversed at a gallop, the gloom of the atmosphere deepening with the miles; but still, beyond the density of the air and the pungent scent in their nostrils, they came upon no sign of the great fire. Once they overtook a bullock team drawing a huge kauri log destined for some settler's homestead, and paused to make inquiries. The native drivers had seen no wahine1 answering to Sandy's description, but they had come up by the coast road and the lady would probably be a long way ahead. At M'Gregor's store a party of native bush-fallers were at work extending and burning the clearing, the storekeeper watching them from the verandah, occasionally turning his eyes to look anxiously along the road or up into the brassy skies. He shouted out and pointed as they drew near, and Sandy wheeled his horse to the verandah, the others reining in some distance ahead.

'You can't get through,' said M'Gregor; 'the mail man turned back an hour ago and has gone down to Jessup's landing.'

'How far along is it?'

'About four miles where it touches the road. The worst of it's in the dip before you rise to Girds' bush. The mail man crossed the bridge, but his horse wouldn't face the hell on the other side. The bridge 'll be gone by this. Were you wanting to make the settlement?'

1 Woman.

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Sandy nodded. 'Did the mail man see any one about?' he asked.

'No; but the natives say that a young woman went through about twenty minutes before he did. They called out to warn her, but she took no notice. Some of them were saying it was Miss Milward,' M'Gregor added, laughing.

Sandy's mouth had hardened a little when he joined the others. 'Straight ahead, boys,' he said curtly, and again the whole party broke into a gallop.

Round the sharp bends of the winding road, up hill and down, clattering across culverts and bridges, with ever the brazen streak of the sky above, the yellow streak of the road beneath, and the dense green walls of the forest towering on either hand. And now the obscurity began to take on a tinge of grayness, thickening into a ghostly fog, through which horse and rider loomed gigantic and ill-defined. The sweating horses grew restive, eyeing the flying wall of greenery with suspicious eyes, their ears thrown back, shying for no perceptible reason from one side of the road to the other. Hitherto the atmosphere had had the transparency of stained glass, but as they approached the scene of the conflagration it became an opaque screen, ever withdrawing itself as the horses plunged forward. But at last it withdrew no farther. It began to move, to turn as on an axis, to roll forward and blot out bush and road and sky alike. The riders drew rein in the heart of the smoke cloud, with the deafening uproar of the burning forest in their ears. Then slowly forward again, the frightened horses rearing and snorting, turning page 355savagely to bite at the urging spurs. And so to the brink of the gully, to a view of the great terror itself, to a seething pit of smoke and flame.

'Is the bridge there?' asked some one.

'No, nor the road.'

Sandy dismounted and handed the reins to Wilson. 'Take the horses back out of this,' he said, 'and run up some kind of shelter for the night. Where's the tucker?'

'Charlie Welch has it.'

'Hand it over to Wilson, Welch. Stay, you had better keep a snack or two in case we get bushed. That's it. Welch is coming with me, boys; he is the best bushman in the crowd, I think.'

Jack Wilson nodded, but he looked supremely disappointed. 'Are you going to try the bush, Mr. Milward?' he asked.

'Yes, it should be two miles to Gird's as the crow flies, but there won't be much flying about it to-night, if we get through at all before dark.'

'You might be able to take to the road a bit farther on.'

'We'll try that, and if all goes well come straight back; but if not, make yourselves as comfortable as you can. Let me see … matches … knife … tobacco. That a tomahawk, Charlie? Thoughtful boy. Well, which way?'

'Keep to the creek,' said Welch, assuming the lead with the confidence of the expert; 'it crosses the road again half a mile up.'

With a cheery good-bye the two plunged into the rolling smoke of the gully.

Then the long night of the waiters began.

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A night full of strange sounds, of spectral lights, of false alarms, of sleepy reconnoitrings, with the enemy ever drawing nearer, now almost imperceptibly, now with fierce irresistible bounds.

And once out of the darkness of the homeward trail there burst into the light of the camp fire the figure of a galloping horseman—man and horse coal-black and of gigantic stature. The watchers sprang to their feet with arresting cries, lost, as was the sound of the hoof-beats, in the fearful pandemonium of noises. Lost? Or had their passage indeed been soundless? What living man would ride thus recklessly into the jaws of hell?

'Did you recognise him?' the elder man asked, with a curious shake in his voice.

Jack Wilson shook his head.

'Mark Gird. There was not a man of his inches in the county, and he rode just so. Many a time before he was struck down I've seen him on his black horse, riding for home. Ay, on this very road; and I've seen the far-ahead look in his eyes same as I see it there to-night.'

'You're balmy, Stephen.'

'He was struck sudden,' continued Stephen, unheeding—'full of meat and strength, and he died hard. But I reckon he's a whole man to-night, and he ain't forgot the old trail and the hut in the bush.'

'Bound for home?' Wilson whispered, overawed by the other's conviction.

The old bushman seated himself and spat thoughtfully into the fire. 'It's a bad business,' he said, 'and there's worse ahead. You bet, we're not coming through this without a price. For years page 357we've been going along that quiet that we've most forgot what sudden death is like, but the bush is out for its utu1 now, and I wish to God the little lass was safe at home in her bed.'

'Drop it,' said Wilson fiercely, starting to his feet and kicking the fire into a blaze. 'I don't believe it was Mark Gird, nor in your utu either.'

'What should a shepherd know about the bush?' returned Stephen contemptuously. 'I'm talking about what I know. There's a spirit in these forests same as in a man. It ain't the new chum that comes slashing at the bush without knowledge and takin' risks that would make his flesh creep if he knew of them that pays the price. It's the man that has mastered the trade, or the man that never tried to learn it, and it's on such as them that the blow's goin' to fall now.'

In such conversation, broken by intervals of slumber, the darkness wore itself away, and in the gray of the dawn Wilson awoke to find some one standing over him. Of a sudden the whole restless, disjointed, uncanny night he had lived through seemed inspired with meaning.

'What is it, Mr. Milward?' he cried, starting to his feet.

'Get your horse and ride back to the station as quickly as you can. She never got through.'

1 Properly 'uto,' an expiatory payment, vengeance.